Face the future

HOWEVER the players of Manchester City and Manchester United make public their thoughts on next week’s Carling Cup semi-final second leg at Old Trafford, they won’t be doing it on Facebook. Both clubs have advised their players not to use the social networking site.

We can safely assume, then, that Gary Neville will not be setting up a Facebook group entitled ‘I bet I can find 1,000,000 people who think Carlos Tevez is a waste of money’.

According to the Manchester Evening News, United moved to issue the advice after a number of bogus pages were set up on Facebook and Twitter by people claiming to be Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Rio Ferdinand.

Football clubs are still getting their heads around Facebook, and there’s a fascinating article on the subject by Mark Segal in the latest issue of When Saturday Comes. The article notes that Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea have dipped their toe in the water by setting up official Facebook fan pages. (But big-four rivals Manchester United have not.)

In addition, Facebook has worked with the PFA to set up official fan sites for individual players. So while you can’t chat to the real Rooney on Facebook, you can at least sign up for his official fan page, have his latest football news appear on your own page and interact with other supporters. It’s not much more than a glorified Newsnow-style news aggregator with a built-in message board, but it seems to be providing a service that United themselves are not.

Across town, City are one of a number of clubs to have set up a Twitter feed. While the feed is largely used to publicise match ticket details and new articles on the official website, it does also allow for interaction with fans. The club may be owned by one of the richest men in the world, but they are keen to ensure that they maintain close links with their support, both in person and online.

City’s Twitter feed works because it operates as a real-time news service. As far as footballers go, though, the site has tended to make the news as a real-time opinions service, most notably when Darren Bent used it last summer to vent his frustrations at the slow pace of his move from Tottenham to Sunderland.

Beyond that, I find it hard to see what purpose Twitter can serve for football fans or clubs. I’m prepared to accept this may be down to my own ignorance. In a non-sporting context, for instance, Graham Linehan (the bloke who co-wrote Father Ted) used the site last year to defend the NHS against an attack from American right-wing politicians and commentators opposed to Barack Obama’s health reforms. (He also posts an eloquent argument for Twitter’s many possibilities here.)

But in a football context, the (usually unofficial) club message board is more likely to be the place to mobilise a campaign (against, say, an unscrupulous club owner).

So a significant Twitter use for football fans is usurped – and therefore you’re more likely to see fans using the site for amusement purposes, which was presumably the motivation for the person who pretended to be Rio Ferdinand last year and set up an account in his name.

‘Red Rio’ posted gloating messages on it after United beat City 4-3 in the Manchester derby. The real Rio, responding via his official MySpace page, wrote: “Whoever’s doing that Twitter, shut up please. It’s not me, don’t believe it.”

Given the potential for fan-created mischief and player-created controversy, it’s perhaps understandable why clubs want their employees to stay away from any unapproved online presence.

But as the When Saturday Comes article suggests, Facebook is more flexible than Twitter, and so offers more possibilities. While leading Premier League clubs are figuring out those possibilities, they will no doubt continue to advise their players to stay away.

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